Sunday, 6 May 2012

Hackney's saving graces

It's been a while coming, but finally I'm leaving Hackney. I've spent the best part of 20 years in this neck of the woods, on and off. Finally, I'm off. Especially treacherously, I'm heading south of the river. By way of a goodbye (or is it adieu?), here are a few things I'll miss about Clapton. In no particular order: • The River Lea Navigation towpath. So pretty in parts, so strewn with litter in others. I only wish i'd jogged along it more than I did, and learned to kayak at the Springfield marina. • The 56 bus. A better class of passenger than the 38. • Hackney Picturehouse. Great seats. Mostly great sightlines (bar the odd pillar...). Particularly crap ticket queuing system, esp at peak times. And it doesn't just attract arch Dalston hipsters. Best thing to happen to Hackney in ages. • Poking around the bookshelves of Pages of Hackney, particularly the 'Local' section. I've spent too much money in that place. Use it or lose it, people.  • Hackney Library. The bookstock itself isn't up to much, and I never sussed the computer system. But the "eclectic" (to say the least) CD collection occasionally threw up some gems. And the loos are handy when you get caught short. • The rebirth of Chatsworth Road. Once a crappy rat run. Now a hipster hangout. So swings and roundabouts. • Getting my bike fixed at BikeYardEast. Celia's a whizz with a puncture and gives the best two-wheel service in the borough. (Don't be smutty.) • London Fields Lido. Especially in autumn when the leaves start coming down and the steam rises. • Palm 2. The only supermarket Claptonists will ever need. You listening, Tesco? • The bike lane that cuts diagonally across Millfields. Because when cycling home - or running drunk from Homerton station after a Kylie concert - you know you're nearly there. • Princess of Wales pub - or 'The Diana' as I annoyingly called it. A tipsy evening spent playing darts with my sofa-surfing mate Mark, a pint of Youngs in the beer 'garden' with my beloved grandad. Ah, such memories.  • Homerton Hospital. Saved me from death-by-meningitis, and gave me a dose of MRSA in the process. *So* Hackney...     Until next time. You can now find me blogging here. Do drop by.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Cycle killers, qu'est-ce que c'est?

I couldn't make yesterday's Tour du Danger, the mass bike ride that took in London's most perilous junctions. It was, by all accounts, a chance for two-wheelers to stick up two spokes to those authorities making the city's streets less – rather than more – safe for cycling.

Several hundred cyclists rode through the capital to call on Transport for London to redesign the most dangerous roads, and to do so quickly to prevent any more deaths. Cycling fatalities this year already stand at 15 - and the latest TfL figures show an eight per cent rise in cycling casualties, despite a decline among other road users.

In the past three weeks alone, two cyclists have been killed while riding on roads that will form part of the London 2012 Olympic cycle route.

Last month, Brian Dorling, a 58-year-old cyclist, became the first to be killed on one of Boris Johnson's flagship cycle superhighways when he was involved in a collision with a tipper truck at the Bow Flyover roundabout.

On Friday, a 34-year-old woman became the capital's 15th casualty this year when was crushed by a lorry on the same superhighway, the CS2, on the westbound carriageway at the Bow Road roundabout. The mayor had been asked to do something about safety at this now notorious blackspot at a London Assembly meeting just days earlier.

I for one hate riding on the blue superhighways: the painted lane always *looks* dangerously slippery even before a rush-hour downpour - I thought I'd offer a few ideas for the mayor and TfL to do to help prevent cyclist deaths.

1. Redesign bad junctions. It's particularly poor that the citywide street "improvement" programme that's carving up roads to make them ready for the "greenest Olympics ever" seems to be putting motorists' needs ahead of cyclists. Why else increase the speed limit over Blackfriars Bridge from 20mph to 30mph if not to give somewhere in town for drivers to put their foot down?

2. Remind cyclists is okay to ride like a motorist. Don't cycle in the gutters, or in those cycle lanes that stop suddenly or make you weave into the path of traffic put you in danger. Move away from the kerb. Hog the road if you have to. The lane is as much yours as it is the angry driver trying to overtake you.

3. Re-educate (educate?) drivers and motorcyclists that they should keep out of the Advanced Stop zones at the front of traffic at lights. Such provisions are there to give cyclists a sporting a chance of pedalling off without being crushed; they're a traffic-calmer, too. Cyclists can stick together by aligning themselves in such a way as to keep motorised vehicles out, and take snaps of offenders' number plates and post them online at My Bike Lane - it's a brilliant site, and also good for naming and shaming those who park in cycle lanes.

(What have I missed?)

And if they don't listen, let's protest again (as Chubby Checker almost sang). Or get people in higher places to. With the Barclays-sponsored cycle superhighways now being talked about as deathtraps, it might be ready to flex its muscle at the LGA before its name is linked with any more fatalities. Anyone got an email for the chairman?

UPDATE: there's a handy, at-a-glance graph that shows how London roads are becoming more dangerous for cyclists, here.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Are you man enough for yoga?

Here's something I wrote about losing my yoga virginity, for The Sunday Telegraph. Bring on the sarky comments...

How hard can it be to join generation flex?
Matt Julian (right), of The Third Space fitness club in Soho shows me how

Are you one of the estimated tens of thousands of men in the UK who have discovered the wonders of yoga? No, me neither. I don’t know my asana from my elbow – but lately it seems as though everybody else does.

Even footballers; Ryan Giggs was so pleased that downward dogging helped him become one of the oldest players in the Premiership, he released a “yoga for men” DVD. Leading sportsmen, from Andy Murray and Evander Holyfield to the entire New Zealand All Blacks, rave about how yoga tones muscle, improves flexibility and increases endurance.

According to the current issue of Men’s Health, one pose in particular – vipareeta karani, or the legs-up-a-wall shoulder stand to those who don’t speak Sanskrit – can even halt hair loss.

And yet despite all the chatter, it still seems irredeemably… girly.

Not any more. James Muthana, founder of, which offers tailored sessions in the workplace, says that the gender balance of his classes has recently reversed. Men now regularly outnumber the women.

“Yoga is no longer the preserve of the hippy-dippy stereotype. The men we teach fit a common profile: they’re between 30 and 40, work in the City, and do two or three sessions a week to maintain peak condition for their main sport, be it rugby, football, running or triathlons. They’ve realised that yoga is great for keeping trim, sculpting the abs, as well as providing that calm but focussed mental attitude that’s useful at work and play. They’re not looking to find themselves. They see yoga as part of their general conditioning.”

But the hardest part, says James, is getting blokes into the class. “I just remind them they’re going into a relaxed environment with a large number of 20- to 40-year-old women who look after themselves. It’s quite an attractive proposition.”

As a yoga virgin, I head to The Third Space fitness club in central London for a taster session. Matt Julian, general manager and its yoga and pilates instructor, agrees that yoga is no longer the preserve of the fairer sex – if it ever was.

“Originally, women weren’t allowed to do yoga,” he says. “For blokes, it’s more a case of asking yourself: are you man enough? There are plenty of moves that men are better at than women – such as this.” He drops to the floor, into a squat, and performs a mini handstand – the Crow. It looks like he could be armwrestling himself. Can yoga get much more manly than that?

Matt, who did his first sun saluation four years ago – “when I could barely touch my toes” – now has the zeal of a convert. He finds at least ten minutes a day to practice his asanas, the various positions that go together to make up a routine. Given there are dozens, if not hundreds, of variants, recommends a beginner like me might benefit from vinyasa flow, a dynamic power yoga based on a series of key poses that you combine into circuits. Repeat until exhausted.

How hard can it be to join generation flex? It’s tougher on the ego than the muscles, says Matt. “Guys don’t like feeling like the worst in the class. Yoga’s not conventionally competitive, but you are competing with yourself to maintain your breathing and your pose.”

Matt shows me a few key moves – the ‘Sun Salutation’, ‘Downward Dog’ and ‘Warrior’ – all of which have Sanskrit names that I promptly forget, and require strength and that you breathe in and out through the nose, “like Darth Vader”. I can do that.

To my surprise, I can also do some of the stretches and hold some of the trickier poses (ta-dah, bending-over-backwards ‘Bridge’!). I can almost keep up with Matt’s everchanging flow of contortions, too. It’s aerobics meets Twister.

“Can you feel the heat building up and a sweat coming on?” he asks. We’re only a minute in, and I am already dripping wet. For such a gentle and deceptively simple circuit workout, I feel a furnace-like glow at the end. But it’s the following day that I really feel the benefit – or, rather, a dull ache all over, and stiffness in muscles that haven’t been used for ages.

If I could just get the hang of a few poses – and the correct places to breathe – I can see myself doing a ten-minute session on the yoga mat every so often, before work or after a gym workout. I feel myself going native.

“Good,” says Matt. “The world would be a better place if more men did yoga.”

* The Third Space (13 Sherwood Street, W1F, 020 7439 6333,;

* The photographs were taken by the remarkable Clapton-based photographer, Rii Schroer. Cheers, mate. Check out her amazing portfolio here.

Friday, 30 September 2011

It's snowing in Clapton...

September 30, 2011 - that's today... - could go down as the hottest September day since the 1800s. It's nudging at 30 degrees "out there"...

So here's something to cool you down.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Taste the wild on Walthamstow Marshes

Here's a piece of mine about foraging for food in Hackney, which appeared last weekend in The Sunday Telegraph.

Where I live in London’s east end, it’s a rare urban idyll. A minute from my door, there’s a convenience store; a minute in the opposite direction and you’re on one of the last remaining wetlands in the capital.

The view from my kitchen is truly bucolic, overlooking the 90-acre nature reserve. With the window ajar, I can just make out the distant rattle of overland trains and, this being Hackney, the squeal of police car sirens.

Chris Bax, Countryfile’s intrepid forager who teaches at Taste The Wild, the woodland skills school in North Yorkshire, thinks I can find fresher and certainly more interesting produce on Walthamstow Marshes than in my local shop. So I’ve invited him to show me how to find it.

Chris, who’s quietly passionate about all things picked and plucked, stops in his tracks and emits a satisfied squeal as he examines a patch of weeds growing my the marshes entrance. “You’ve got an entire wild herb garden on your doorstep,” he enthuses, getting breathless with excitement. “I thought we might find a few things, but the range of stuff growing here is just… bonkers!”

We could do with a supermarket basket for all the goodies he’s about to find on the verges, in the hedgerows, hanging from trees. By the marshland footpath, he spots a tall, silvery plant. He rips off a flowerhead, scrunches it up in his fist, and takes a deep sniff. “Mugwort,” he says, aaah-ing as he exhales. “Crush it and you’ll get citrus first.” The lemony aroma is heady and, to me, not unlike Fairy liquid.

“But it’s also full of umami,” he says – the hallowed “fifth taste” (after salty, sour, sweet and bitter) that is often translated from the Japanase as ‘savouriness’.

As mugwort sounds like something out of Harry Potter, I want to be sure it’s safe to eat – and what to do with it. “It’s an aromatic perrenial herb, and mostly overlooked in the kitchen,” he says. “You can use the flowerhead and leaves to enrich stocks and chutneys. It’ll adds meatiness to gravy and Sunday roasts.”

Some of the country’s more adventurous Michelin-starred restaurants, such as L’Enclume, on the edge of the Lake District, are doing their bit to bring it back into culinary circulation; chef and patron Simon Rogan has used mugwort to prepare duck and suckling pig. You can’t buy it in fresh in supermarkets – but it’s happily growing for free and mostly unnoticed by the River Lea.

Moving on, Chris finds a patch of yarrow, a “bitter but pretty” culinary herb with fronds shaped like a feather. “It’s amazing just how many urban weeds are edible,” he says. “This, you can just chuck into salads.”

Next, he spots a spear thistle, with its purple plume and spiny stem. But peel that away, and inside there’s a succulent green thread that’s mild and crunchy – “just like celery,” marvels Chris, nibbling away. “You can toss this like noodles into stir-fries.”

As we walk on, we alight upon a batch of comfrey, a pretty, purple flowering plant with furry, cucumber-scented leaves – but with potentially carbolic properties if digested in great quantity. Chris decides it’s a suitable point for a few do’s and don’ts when picking and preparing wild food.

“Take what you’ve foraged in moderation to begin with,” he advises. “Don’t, for instance, make a whole stew from mugwort alone. Try adding a little bit to dishes. Take it slowly. And if in any doubt, don’t eat it.”

[subs, don’t delete this par] Fittingly for this urban area of London popular with media trendies, he pulls out his iPhone and shows me a free downloadable app that has descriptinos and full-screen pictures to help autumn foragers identify plants. The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves lists edible fruits and berries that can be found in the wild – making plants such as rowan, medlar and blackthorn easily recognisable at a glace. “It’s the ideal reference tool for amateur foragers,” says Chris.

Having scouted the marshland verges, it’s time for a few trees and shrubs to give up their goodies. Though most of the blackberries have already been scrumped, there’s still a bounty of elderberries. “There a bit boring on their own,” Chris admits, “but they’re a versatile berry, full of vitamin C, and will bulk up a hedge jelly, or make a Pontac sauce”, a traditional English spicy ketchup with the consistency of Worcestershire sauce.

As I collect bunches of luscious elderberries, Chris is more taken with his latest discovery: a cobnut tree. “Eat them green, before they’re hard and need cracking” he says, gnawing at a freshly plucked specimen. “When they’re sweet and young, scrape out the flesh and make it into a pesto with some Wensleydale, wild garlic, nettle, hazelnuts and rapeseed oil.” He makes it sound so easy - and delicious.

There’s another muffled squeal when he spots an oak heavy with acorns. “A classic nut,” he says, with the passion of a man reminiscing about a favourite prog rock band. “They’re too good to just feed to pigs. You can make into a flour, if you bleach out the tannins first by boiling them in two changes of water, then bake them before grinding…” As if someone like me, who buys chick peas in tins because life’s too short to even soak things overnight, is going ever going to do that. But he keeps trying to convince.

“They’re great!” he says, like the Frosties tiger. “You can bake them like chestnuts and put in stews and stuffing, or make them into patties. They make great biscuits... and ice-cream! Not whole acorns, obviously – you leave them to infuse in the milk. They give off a caramelly warmth. In the Second World War, they even made them into an ersatz coffee…”

During our hour of intense foraging yards from my door, Chris singles out almost two dozen different herbs, fruits and nuts that I’d never noticed before. I now have cobnuts drying in bowls on windowsills, grated horseradish root infusing in oil (“it’s knockout on Asian dishes, and you’ll only need a few drops to get that wasabi kick”), and bottles of elderberry cordial in the fridge for winter. I’ve added wild pea shoots to salads, brewed minty flavoured tea from white dead nettle, and cooked up vatfuls of hedge jelly from all those seemingly wasted rosehips, sloes and hawthorn haws, made to Chris’s recipe (see below).

At this rate, I’m just a global wheat shortage away from milling my own acorns into flour. Bring. It. On.

* The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves is available to download free at

Chris Bax's Hedge Jelly

The beauty of this recipe is that you can use whichever edible hedgerow fruit you can find. Just throw in some crab apples (halved) to add pectin to the mix and help it set.

1 x basket of mixed berries e.g. elderberries, blackberries, rosehips, hawthorn haws, sloes
Crab apples

The exact amounts depends on how much fruit you have gathered. I recommend about half a basket of hawthorn haws and then a mixture of the other fruits, but the beauty is that the jelly is slightly different every time.

Clean the fruit of any large stalks and leaves, put them into a large pan, cover with water and simmer for an hour until the fruit loses its colour and is very soft. (You might need to top up the water.) Strain through muslin and save the liquid.

Measure your liquid: for every pint, add one pound of sugar and the strained juice of a lemon. Boil fast until the jelly reaches the setting point, skimming the scum off regularly. Pour into sterile jars and cover when cool enough.

* For more Chris Bax recipes, visit

The edited version appears on the Telegraph website

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Lea Bridge Road station gets the red light

There had been a suggestion - more of a distant hope, really - that the disused train station on Lea Bridge Road might one day be rebuilt.

It used to be a stop on the line between Stratford and Tottenham Hale, before it was closed down in 1985. You can still see the remains of the station near Argall Way. Passengers on the Stansted Express from Stratford whizz through it. In theory, all that's needed is a new station to be built on what remains a derelict site.

But after much consultation, and despite a growing population along the Lea Bridge Road (Essex Wharf, coming soon...), it looks like it won't be put back into service after all. Click here.

A shame.